I never thought I'd write this about any phone, but the LG G5 just feels a bit desperate. It feels rushed. It feels like LG's designers were locked in a room, working on what could be a very good phone, and then someone bolted out the door Leeroy Jenkins-style, and unleashed the G5 on the world before the concept was fully realized.
Check it: In the transition from last year's G4 to this year's G5, LG moved to a nearly all-metal design, added a fingerprint sensor, and overhauled its battery swapping system. The company also added an always-on display, and a second rear-facing camera for taking wider-angle shots. On face value, these all sound like interesting, welcome additions. But dig a bit deeper, and you'll find some of the changes are quite incremental, and not always well-executed.
And then we have LG's new Friends accessories: two hardware modules that snap directly into the G5's body, giving the phone an upgradability story that's similar to what Google imagines for Project Ara. The Friends are LG's bid to show that the company is still thinking big in the mobile space, and pushing the edge of what a smartphone can be.
These are admirable goals. Just one problem, though: The two Friends I tested -- the Hi-Fi Plus digital audio converter and Cam Plus camera controller -- just aren't very good. They drag down the G5's score, which is already imperiled by poor execution and dubious decisions.
It's a shame, because the G5 ($689 unlocked on BestBuy) does improve upon last year's G4 in a few areas. But for this review we have to look at the entire G5 concept -- the full experience, and what it says about LG's smartphone development.
Finally, an (almost) all-metal body
For two years running, we've had to diss LG for shipping its premium flagship phones with plastic shells. Apple has had a metal unibody design since the iPhone 5, and Samsung made the jump to full metal cladding for its Galaxy flagship two generations ago.
Of course, LG has always had a defensible excuse: Its earlier flagship phones required a plastic back panel to facilitate the company's battery-swapping scheme. The opportunity to swap a depleted battery for a fully charged battery has been a unique selling proposition for LG, but owners have had to accept the compromise of a downmarket design -- along with the possibility that their back panels will fly away into oblivion when they drop their phones. Indeed, those back panels were difficult to pry off for battery swaps, but eager to pop off during spills.
In the new G5, LG finally improves its system for battery swaps, and introduces a mostly all-metal body in the process. As LG explains, the phone's body is made from "microdized" aluminum -- a die-cast aluminum shell covered in primer, which is then covered by a metal pigment. Our pre-production unit (which I cover extensively here) came in pink, and has a bit more glowing luster than the silver version I tested for this final review. But both the pink and silver bodies look and feel more high-end than the plastic-backed G4 I reviewed in 2015.
Just be aware that the microdized surface will scuff and and scratch under abuse. I would have preferred a more durable finish, and maybe that's something LG can improve in next year's G6.
A better approach to battery swapping
The company's materials choice notwithstanding, I think LG has finally landed on a good compromise for its battery-swapping scheme.
In the new system, you power down the phone, press a button on the side of the body, wiggle out the "chin" that serves as an end-cap for the chassis, and then slide out the cartridge that holds the G5's 2800 mAh battery. From here, you unseat the battery by sort of "breaking" it off the chin. It feels like a violent motion that will damage the chin's seating point, but I tested the procedure ad nauseum, and the materials appear to hold up. I have confidence in the new swapping system, overall.
At first glance, the chin doesn't look horribly incongruous with the chassis to which it connects, especially when you're looking at the front of the phone. However, if you look at the back of the phone, you'll see a prominent seam between the two pieces -- it immediately telegraphs that you'll never be dunking the G5 in water.
If you go one step further, and hold up the G5 to a bright light and look very closely, you'll see that there are slight gaps between the chin and the unibody. I can imagine some loose clothing threads -- or, in my case, dog hairs -- getting snagged in these crevices. I think the real-world impact of the gaps is marginal, but simply from a philosophical design perspective, this is the kind of thing that would have gotten an Apple designer fired during the Steve Jobs era.
I never found myself swapping batteries with the G3 and G4 because prying off the plastic back panel was a pain in the ass. So, for this reason alone, the improved system might compel me to finally to get with LG's swapping program. But here's an even more compelling reason for battery swaps: The G5 falls behind its competitive set in terms of raw battery life.
With a time of 6:33 in the PCMark battery life test, the G5 has noticeably less longevity than the Galaxy S7 (7:15) and Galaxy S7 Edge (8:17). Accordingly, the G5 lagged behind in the Geekbench 3.3 battery test as well, lasting for 6:03 to the S7's 6:56 and S7 Edge's whopping 7:59.
Beautiful display with a near-useless always-on feature
LG's battery has to drive an insanely high-resolution 5.3-inch "Quad HD" display. Last year's G4 has the same 1440x2560 resolution, but measures 5.5 inches. I typically like my phones as large as possible, but during testing I never noticed the G5's slight dimension decrease, and LG's IPS LCD display is as beautiful as ever. I did notice a small amount of backlight bleed with the Fullscreen Display Test app, but my review unit didn't suffer enough bleed to be a tangible problem issue during real-world use.
On the flipside, LG's new always-on feature -- which shows the current time and notification icons when the phone is sleeping -- is insanely dim compared to the Galaxy S7's similar implementation (which benefits from Samsung's Super AMOLED screen).
Just as troubling, LG's always-on feature doesn't share helpful information: You can only see which apps have waiting notifications. I much prefer Google's Ambient Mode, a similar feature in pure Android Nexus phones, which presents much more granular detail, like the content of texts and Hangouts messages.
LG still supports its Knock Code feature to wake the display from sleep, but now the system requires six screen taps (instead of four) to unlock the phone. I've always loved Knock Code, but throughout testing I used LG's new fingerprint sensor almost exclusively to unlock the phone. Like the Nexus 6P's sensor, LG's is superfast and accurate, and sits on the back of the phone.
It's a slightly less convenient position than the front-of-phone sensor orientation you'll find on Samsung and Apple phones, but it undoubtedly helps preserve the G5's compact dimensions. Indeed, LG's display seems to make use of every millimeter of available space, and putting the sensor in the front would probably just increase the G5's height.
LG's fingerprint sensor is smaller than the Nexus 6P's sensor, but the decrease in size never posed any problems during a week of use. LG's sensor also integrates directly with the power button -- which means the power button remains stuck on the back of the phone. But at least LG finally moved its volume controls to the side of the body. This makes adjusting music volume during the middle of a workout a bit less awkward.
Strong performance with a missing app drawer
Armed with the same Qualcomm 820 processor that appears in Samsung's Galaxy S7, the LG G5 performs similar to its direct competitor. In PCMark's Work Performance productivity test, the G5 scored 5686, where the Galaxy S7 hit a slightly higher 5774. In 3DMark's Sling Shot ES 3.1 gaming test, the G5 scored 2309 to the Galaxy S7's 2554. Throughout all our other benchmarks, the G5 trailed the Galaxy S7 by similarly small margins, and none of the performance deltas were wide enough to be of any concern. More importantly, the G5 doesn't stutter or lag during real-world use.
On the software side of the equation, LG mostly executed small tweaks to its skin of Android Marshmallow. There are some changes to the Settings interface, but they won't bug you too much. You'll just think, "Hmmm. That's different."
But when you get to the bottom of your home screen, brace yourself. Out of the box, the G5 ships without an app drawer -- and that's just madness if you're a long-time Android user who's come to rely on the app drawer for finding, sorting, and simply storing apps.
In its reviewer's guide, under a section titled "Advanced UX," LG says managing apps has become more and more complicated, and asserts its new "integration" of home screen and app drawer is "expected to provide a more straightforward approach to app management."
In LG's new world order, you can sort apps by name or download date; create different grid arrangements (4x4, 4x5 or 5x5); and hide apps by checking which ones you want to banish from the home screen. But, no, you can't have an app drawer unless you download a separate launcher.
Installing the Google Now launcher brings back the app drawer. You can also download LG SmartWorld, do a search for Home 4.0, and install that add-on to bring back the app drawer. LG tells me this will become an over-the-air update later this month, so, clearly, LG's Leeroy Jenkins foray into "Advanced UX" is being reconsidered.
Is a wide-angle camera a real innovation?
One of the best features of last year's G4 is its 16-megapixel rear camera with f/1.8 aperture and laser autofocus. The sensor itself is great, but the phone's manual software controls are even better. The G4 lets you manually adjust white balance, focus, exposure, ISO, and shutter speed -- from 1/3200ths to an insane 30 seconds. You can even save your shots as RAW files. The upshot is that you can execute a wide range of effects and treatments with editing software that were heretofore only available in expensive stand-alone cameras.
The camera package is one of the reasons I recommended the G4 so highly. And now that very same package is back in the G5. But this time it's augmented by a second rear camera... which is more gimmicky and one-dimensional than impressive.
The second camera is only 8 megapixels and the aperture drops down in quality to f/2.4. But where the standard rear camera is limited to a 78-degree field of view, the second camera can capture a more panoramic image with a field of view of 135 degrees. Both cameras share a single software interface, and you switch from one to the other by pinch-zooming on your camera preview screen.
It's an easy system to use, but the wide-angle camera introduces significant fish-eye distortion, and has limited applications. LG suggests using it to get more people into a group shot, but your friends on the edges of the photo will look like they're being stretched by a fun-house mirror.
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